Fifth Sunday of Easter John 13:31-35/Acts 11:1-18
I wonder how many of you remember what happened in the autumn of 1989? It was a momentous time in history, as the Berlin wall which had separated West Berlin and East Germany for 28 years was torn down. As I sat at home with some friends, we were shouting and cheering and the images of that event remain firmly in my memory. It was a great moment in history, a moment of celebration as a symbol of division and separation was destroyed.
The Acts passage we heard is about the destruction of another terrible wall built of pride, racism, and superior attitudes. What we find in this passage, is a church struggling to come to terms with change, and facing issues that could threaten to tear it apart – does this sound familiar? We see the barriers that can so easily be put up between people, and also how we can overcome these divisions.
We have to remember that the early church was a Jewish Church. Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were Jews, and Jesus’ ministry had been spent amongst the Jewish people. And although Jesus’ commission to his disciples was to “go and make disciples of all nations,” up to this point the followers of Jesus were mostly Jewish.
But shock horror, now the church was beginning to see Gentiles, non-Jews, coming to faith in Christ, and this posed some significant problems. The Jewish Christians continued to observe the Old Testament food laws and circumcision, and they thought that the Gentile converts should do the same. But then they also thought the Gentiles were unclean. These any other similar problems were eventually sorted out which you can read about in Acts 15, but in this passage these issues remain unresolved. And what we see is potential divisions emerging between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
And the same can happen today. There are all sorts of barriers that we can build between ourselves and other people, both inside the church and outside. Barriers built along racial, religious, or social grounds. Barriers based on age or sex, upon education, or political affiliation, social or cultural barriers.
There are also some striking parallels between the church in Jerusalem and the church today. Today the church nationally and locally finds itself in a time of change, and we can be left feeling threatened and vulnerable. The church which was once at the very heart of our society, now finds its self on the margins. The church once was respected, but now it has to fight to make its voice heard.
So what is the answer?
We find it in the gospel reading – which gives us one of the most familiar verses in the bible.
Jesus said: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.’
The most simple sounding commandment and probably the most difficult to carry out. It is easy to agree with the sentiment, it is fairly easy to recognise the wisdom of it. However it requires a great deal of courage to put it into practise and it cost Jesus his life.
He died because he remained true to this commandment to love, regardless of the response to him. He was hated and treated unjustly by his enemies and yet he still loved them. Not in an emotional, sentimental way, but by understanding them and absorbing the fear which made them react against him.
This is what Jesus calls us to do – we see in the Acts of the Apostles that the early Christians overcame their problems and dedicated their lives to spreading this universal message of love and forgiveness.
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It occurred in a village in France in l943. The village was occupied by the Germans but the local people felt sorry for the soldiers as they were young men, far from home, on short rations. Each day the parish priest would go from door to door with two large baskets begging food for them. Produce would be given, a few eggs, some bread and vegetables. Then one day the resistance movement blew up a bridge. The commander of the forces demanded reprisals and ordered that every man in the village between the ages of 16 and 65 be taken to the village square and shot in front of their families.
The distraught angry villagers turned on the priest.
‘if you come again asking for food for these murderers we will kill you.’ On the day of the mass funerals the lithe church was overflowing, every family had lost someone.
The Priest stood up and read the passage we had today. ‘I give you a new commandment that you love one another just as I have loved you.’ Later that day he stood in the village square, with tears coursing down his face as he watched the villagers filling the baskets he had placed at his feet with food for the enemy soldiers.
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Jesus did not say it would be easy. He simply stated that this is what we had to do – it is the only way to show what the Kingdom of God is like. Sometimes we succeed in doing the loving thing, and sometimes we fail, but it is in the struggle to love that we draw closer to God and we affect people and the world in which we live more than we think possible. One day we will understand just how much.
When we think of the forgiveness and generosity of the villagers in France, perhaps we may feel we could never match such love. If we had seen a loved one murdered we might feel it is impossible to forgive – yet we see it time and time again, in every walk of life. The IRA bombings, stabbing of black teenagers, acts of war, are examples.
It is important to remember that this kind of love and forgiveness does not come naturally to most of the human race. This is a gift from God. Those villagers in France managed to love – when? After attending Mass, after hearing the words of Jesus with their heart as well as their ears and by the grace of God.
This is not the love we hear bandied about every day in our conversations, I love this or that person, song, or chocolate bar. This is love that ensures that the needs of others are met, regardless of whether or not they are deemed worthy, whether or not we like them. Whether or not they are like us. I am continually challenged by the reaction of folk to asylum seekers, and I have been surprised at several negative comments regarding the coat collection for the Syrian refugees. One person said they would only give me a coat if it went to one of our own – there are still barriers to be broken down even in the church!
It is going to be hard to love others in a hostile environment, and this is the challenge of today’s Gospel, which is both simple and profound. It is as fresh a call as it was when it came from the lips of Jesus: ‘Love one another.just as I have loved you’
And so we pray for that gift from God, the grace that will melt our hearts and enable us so to love. Then and only then will the world recognise the Christian message. Amen